In the sessions of fall camp open to reporters, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each Vol quarterback has been, more or less, uninspiring.
Justin Worley has finally grown into his body, but his mobility remains a point of concern, especially in an offense (allegedly) predicated around speed. Joshua Dobbs remains the most comfortably mobile option, but his pocket confidence and passing consistency is a mess, seeming to have taken more steps backward than forward during the summer months. Meanwhile, Nathan Peterman seems, to my eye, like he would be a strong, efficient back-up to either Worley or Dobbs, but has never looked much like a starting SEC quarterback. (Peterman, throughout camp, has taken regular reps with the second-string.) Coaches have made no suggestion that they intend to, as other schools have, go with multiple quarterbacks who would be featured in formations that played to their strengths.
Finally, with the ongoing quarterback search on every sports reporter’s mind, the Vols media day on Aug. 14 began with comments from Butch Jones, who led with long-awaited news: “Justin Worley will be our starting quarterback, moving forward.”
And with that, Tennessee fans let out a long sigh. Of relief? Some. Of frustration, brought on by memories of the beginning of 2013, when Justin Worley was also named the starting quarterback? Also some.
Moments after relaying the news to Twitter that Worley was officially named the quarterback, one of our followers, Mac B, poignantly responded “Any quarterback news?”
With what sounded like little differentiation among the quarterbacks, it’s hard to be convinced that we’re any closer to an answer than we were in the spring, even with Worley getting tapped to go first, which perhaps his seniority should entitle him to. Coaches described what sounded like a very tight competition.
“Justin is playing the best football that we’ve seen him play since we’ve been here,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who came to Tennessee with coach Butch Jones before last season. “His timing and rhythm is outstanding right now, and on top of that, he’s made his presence felt. We want whoever is playing the best at the position right now. And the quarterbacks compete for the position every day, and that won’t change moving forward.” Again, to be fair, all this criticism, of all three quarterbacks, is based on what I’ve seen from the quarterback candidates over the course of camp, while trying to block out any speculation or hype.
With the impressive recruiting class that Jones brought in over the spring and summer, talent was piled on every position, except quarterback. On the upside, whoever takes over at the helm next year will come into a deep, experienced, talented team, more so than in recent times at Tennessee. That, and the opportunity to start right away, would be a very nice offer in the ears of a high-profile rising freshman quarterback. Worley starting in 2014 makes that offer possible, as he will leave the team after this season. That is a pretty jaded theory, but one that can’t be fully discounted. A rebuilding effort like this takes time, and it takes a plan. Nobody would begrudge the Tennessee coaches for playing the long-game with a quarterback decision, opting for a senior “field manager” while searching for the perfect fit for the future.
But, first thing’s first: The 2014 schedule opens up with a similar trio of games as last year, which got Worley benched. Instead of going on the road to face the horrifying speed of Oregon, though, the Vols travel to face the #4-ranked Sooners, in Norman, Okla., where the Vols will be heavy, heavy underdogs. That game, along with home stands against Arkansas State and Utah State, will provide ample opportunities for Worley to showcase his yet-unverified boosts in mobility, confidence, strength, and leadership.
Like last year, though, a couple of early opportunities could turn into pitfalls, especially as competitors for the position nip at Worley’s heels while he tries to navigate the role of a senior leading a very young team. If the field of competition is as tight as advertised, the first three games would seem like a true audition for the rest of 2014. If Worley can reach the Georgia game at 2-1 or better, then he’s probably good to go. If not, it’s unclear what direction the quarterback position will turn, heading into another brutal dance through the SEC.
Reaching a conclusion to the long race to be the #1 arm on Rocky Top would be a serious benchmark in rebuilding the Tennessee football program. I’m just not convinced that the race is over yet.